Book: Downwind



i

There was enterprise among the sprawl of huts and shanties that was the Downwind of Sanctuary. Occasionally someone even found the means of exacting a livelihood out of the place. The aim of most such was to get out of Downwind as quickly as possible, on the first small hoard of coin, which usually saw the entrepreneurs back again in a fortnight, broke and slinking about the backways, sleeping as the destitute immemorially slept, under rags and scraps and up against the garbage they used for forage (thin pickings in the Downwind) for the warmth of the decaying stuff. So they began again or sank in the lack of further ideas and died that way, stark and stiff in the mud of the alleys of Downwind.

Mama Becho was one who prospered. There was an air to Mama Becho, but so there was to everyone in Downwind. The stink clung to skin and hair and walls and mud and the inside of the nostrils, and wafted on the winds, from the offal of Sanctuary's slaughterhouses and tanneries and fullers and (on days of more favorable wind) from the swamp to the south; but on the rare days the wind blew out of the north and came clean, the reek of Downwind itself overcame it so that no one noticed, least of all Mama Becho, who ran the only tavern in the Downwind. What she sold was mostly her own brew, and what went into it (or fell into it) in the backside of her shanty-tavern, not even Downwinders had courage to ask, but paid for it, bartered for it and (sometimes in the dark maze of Downwind streets) knifed for it or died of it. What she sold was oblivion and that was a power in Downwind like the real sorcery that won itself a place and palaces across the river that divided Sanctuary's purgatory from this neighboring hell.

So her shanty's front room and the alley beside was packed with bodies and areek with fumes of brew and the unwashed patrons who sprawled on the remnants of makeshift furniture, itself spread with rags that had layered deep over un laundered years, the latest thrown to cover holes in the earlier. By day the light came from the window and the door; by night a solitary lamp provided as much smoke as light over the indistinct shapes of lounging bodies and furnishings and refuse. The back room emitted smoke of a different flavor and added a nose-stinging reek to the miasma of the front room. And that space and that eventually fatal vice was another of Mama Becho's businesses.

She moved like a broad old trader through the reefs of couches and drinkers, the flotsam of debris on the floor. She carried clusters of battered cups of her infamous brew in stout red fists, a mountainous woman in a tattered smock which had stopped having any color, with a crazy twist of grizzled hair that escaped its wooden skewers and flew in wisps and clung to her cheeks in sweaty strings. Those arms could heave a full ale keg or evict a drunk. That scowl, of deepset eyes like stones, of jaws clamped tight and mouth lost in jowls, was perpetual and legendary in the Downwind. Two boys assisted her, shadow-eyed and harried and the subject of rumors only whispered outside Mama Becho's. Mama Becho had always taken in strays, and no few of them were grown, like Tygoth, who might be her own or one of the foundlings, and lounged now with half-crazed eyes following the boys. Tygoth was Mama Becho's size, reputed half her wit, and loyal as a well-fed hound. There was besides, Haggit, who was one of Mama's eldest, a lean and twisted man with lank greasy hair, a beggar, generally: but some mornings he came home, limping not so badly as he did in Sanctuary's streets, to spend his take at Mama Becho's.

So enterprise brought some coin to the Downwind in these days of unrest, with Jubal fallen and the Stepsons riding in pairs down the street, striking terror where they could; and coin inevitably brought the bearer to Mama Becho's, and bought a corner of a board that served as a bench, or a pile of rags to sit on, or for the fastidious, the table, the sole real table with benches, and a draft of one of Mama Becho's special kegs or even (ceremoniously wiped with a grimy rag) a cup and a flask of wine.

Mradhon Vis occupied the table this night as he had many nights, alone. Mad Elid had tried him again with her best simper and he had scowled her off, so she had slunk out the door to try her luck and her thieving fingers on some drunker prey. Thoughts seethed in him tonight that would have chilled Elid's blood, vague and half-formed needs. He wanted a woman, but not Elid. He wanted to kill, someone, several some-ones in particular, and he was no small part drunk, imagining Elid's screams-even Elid might scream, which he would like to hear, which might ease his rage at least so long as he was mildly drunk and seething. He had no real grudge against Elid but her persistence and her smell, which was nothing which deserved such hate. It was perhaps because, looking at her, with her foolish grin that tried to seduce and disgusted him instead, he saw something else, and darker, and more terrible; and smelled behind her reek a delicate musk, and saw hell behind her eyes.

Or he saw himself, who also had traded too much of himself and sold what he would have kept if he had had the luxury.

But generally the whores and the bullies let Mradhon Vis alone. That was tribute of a kind in Mama Becho's, to an outsider, and not a large man. He was foreign. It was in his dark face and in his accent. And if he was watched, still no one had seriously tried him, excepting Elid.

He paid for the special wine. He maintained his solitude through a slice of gritty stoneground bread and some of Mama Becho's passable bean soup, and kept his surreptitious watch over the door.

Night after night he spent here, and many of his days. He lodged across the alley, in space Mama Becho rented for more than it was worth-excepting her assurance that it would stay inviolate, that the meager furnishings would always be there, that there would never be some sly opening of the door when he was out or while he was asleep. Tygoth made his rounds of Mama's properties all night with stick in hand, and if anything was not what it ought to be, then corpses floated down the White Foal in the morning.

That was good so long as his small hoard of coin lasted, and it was running low. Then the reckoning came.

The woman-mountain rolled his way and loomed beside him, setting down a second cup of wine and repossessing the empty. "Fine stuff," she said, "this."

He laid down the coin she wanted. Fingers the match of Tygoth's picked it off the scarred table with incongruously long curved nails, ridged like horn. "Thank 'ee," she said sweetly. Her face in its halo of grizzled hair, its mound of cheeks-grinned to match the voice, but the eyes in their suety pits were black and almond and glittered like eyes he had seen the other side of swords-point. She fed him on the best, gave him sleeping space like a farmwife some fatted hog; he knew. She would be sure she had all the money first and then go on to other things- Mama Becho dealt in souls, both men and women, and she named the services, when the coin was gone. She had him in her eye-a man who could be useful, but having weaknesses-a man who had tastes that cost too much. She scented helplessness, he reckoned; she smelled blood and made sure that he bled all he had- and oh, she would be there when he had run out of money, grinning that snake's grin at him and offering him his choices, knowing he would die without, because a man like him did die in the Downwind when the money ran out along with any hope of getting more. He would not beg, or sell what sold in the Downwind; he would kill to get out; or kill himself with binges of Downwind brew, and Mama knew what a delicate bird she had in her nets -delicate though he had survived half a dozen battlefields: he could not survive in the Downwind, not as Downwinders did. So it was possession that gleamed in Mama's deepset eyes, the way she regarded one of her treasured pewter cups or looked at one of her boys, assessing its best use and on whom it was best bestowed.

She kept a private den backstairs, that rag-piled, perfume-stinking boudoir with the separate back door, out of which her Boys and Girls came and went on her errands, out of which wafted the fumes of wine and expensive krrf-he lived opposite that door like the maw of hell, had been inside once, when he let his room. She had insisted on giving him a cup of wine and taking him to Her Room when explaining the rules and the advantages her Boys' protection afforded. She had offered him krrf-a small sample, and given him to know what else she could supply. And that den continued its furtive visitors, and Tygoth to walk his patrol, rapping on the walls with his stick, even in the rain, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap in the night, keeping that alley safe and everything Mama owned in its place.

"Come backstairs," Mama would say when the money ran out. "Let's talk about it." Grinning all the while.

He knew the look. Like Elid's. Like-He drank to take a taste from his mouth, made the drink small, because his life was measured in such sips of his resources. He hated, gods, he hated. Hated women, hated the bloodsucking lot of them, in whose eyes there was darkness that drank and drank forever.

There had been a woman, his last employer. Her name was Ischade. She had a house on the river. And there was more than that to it. There were dreams. There was that well of dark in every woman's eyes, and that dark laughter in every woman's face, so that in any woman's arms that moment came that turned him cold and useless, that left him with nothing but his hate and the paralysis in which he never yet had killed one-whether because there was a remnant of selfwill in him or that it was terror of her that kept him from killing. He was never sure. He slept alone now. He stayed to the Downwind, knowing she was fastidious, and hoping she was too fastidious to come here; but he had seen her first walking the alleys of the Maze, a bit of night in black robes, a bit of darkness no moon could cure, a dusky face within black hair, and eyes no sane man should ever see. She hunted the alleys of Sanctuary. She still was there . . . or on the river, or closer still. She took her lovers of a night, the unmissable, the negligible, and left them cold by dawn.

She had sent him from her service unscathed-excepting the dreams, and his manhood. She called him in his nightmares, promising him an end-as he had seen her whisper to her victims and hold them with her eyes. And at times he wanted that end. That was what frightened him most, that the darkness beckoned like the only harbor in the world, for a man without hire and patronage, for a Nisibisi wanted by law at home and stranded on the wrong side of a war.

He dared not become too drunk. The night Mama Becho ever thought he had all his money on him, which he had-Then they would go for him. Now it was a game. They tested him, learned him and his resources, whether he was a thief or no, what skills he had. So he still baffled them.

And watched the door. Desperately casual, pretending not to watch.

All of a sudden his heart lurched an extra beat and began to hammer in his chest, for the man he had been waiting for had just come through the door; and Mradhon Vis sipped his wine and gave the most blunt disinterested stare that he gave to all comers, not letting his eyes linger in the least on this young ruffian, darkhaired, darkskinned, who came here to spend his money. The man came closer, edged past his back, and sat down at the end of the same table, which made staring inconvenient. Mradhon feigned disinterest, finished his wine, got up and walked away through the debris and out the open door, where drinkers and drunks took the fresher air, leaned on walls or sprawled against them or sat on the two benches.

So Mradhon took his place, his shoulders to the wall in the shadows, and stood and stood until his knees were numb, while the traffic came and went in and out Mama Becho's door, until soon Tygoth would take up his vigil in the alleyway.

Then the man came out again, reeling a little in satiation-but not that much, and not lingering among the loiterers by the door.


ii

The quarry passed to the right and Mradhon Vis leaned away from his wall, stepped over the sprawled legs of a fellow hanger-on and went after the young man, along the muddy streets and alleyways. The wine had lost its effect on him in his waiting, but he pretended its influence in his step-he had learned such strategems in his residency in the Downwind. He knew the • ways thereabouts, every door, every turning that could take a body out of sight in a moment. He had studied them with all the care with which in other days he had studied broader terrain, and now he stalked this shanty maze, knowing just when his step might sound on harder ground, when his quarry, turning a corner, might chance to see him, and where he might safely lag back or take a shorter way. He had not known which way this man might go; but he had him now, and knew every way that he might take, no matter which way he might turn. It had been a long wait already-for this man, this current hope of his, who visited Becho's with money, who also liked his wine, and bought krrf in the back room.

He knew this man-who did not know him. Knew him from a place across the river, in the Maze, in a place where he had courted Jubal's employ, once in better days. And if there was a chance left to him, it was this. He had tracked this man on another night and lost him; but this night he knew the ground, had set the odds in his own favor in this hunt.

And the man-youth-was at least some part drunk.

The way crossed the main road, past a worse and worse tangle of hovels, past the flimsy shelters of the hopeless, the old, the desolate, and now and again a doorway where someone had taken shelter against the wind, eyes that saw everything and nothing in the dark, witnesses whose own misery enveloped them and left only apathy behind.

Down a side track and into an alley this time, and it was a dead end: the quarry entered it and Mradhon knew-knew the door there, as he knew every turn and twist of this street. He thrust himself around the corner, having heard the steps go on.

"You," Mradhon said. "Man."

The youth whirled, hand to belt, with the quick flash of steel in the blackness.

"Friend," Mradhon said. He had his own knife, in case.

If the young man's mind had been fumed, it was shocked clear now. He had set himself in a knifeman's crouch and Mradhon measured it as too far for any simple move.

"Jubal," Mradhon said ever so softly. "That name make a difference to you?"

Still silence.

"I've got business to talk with you," Mradhon said. "Suppose we do that."

"Maybe." The voice came tightly. The crouch never varied. "Come a little closer."

"Why don't you open that door and let's talk about it."

Another silence.

"Man, are we going to stand here for the world to watch? I know you, I'm telling you. I'm by myself. The risk is on my side."

"You stand there. I'll open the door. You go in first."

"Maybe you've got friends in there."

"You're asking the favors, aren't you? Where did I get you on my heel? Or were you waiting on the street?"

Mradhon shrugged. "Ask me inside."

"Maybe I'll talk to you." The voice grew reasoned and calm. "Maybe you just put away that knife and keep your hands where I can see them." The youth inserted his knife in the seam of the door and flipped up the latch inside, pushed it open. The inside was dark. "Go first, about six steps across the room."

"Let's have a light first, shall we?"

"Can't do that, man. No one in there to light it Just go on."

"Sorry. Think I'll stand here after all. Maybe you'll change your living after tonight; maybe you'll slip me after this. So I'll have my say here-"

"Have it inside." A second figure stepped into the alley out of the dark doorway, and the voice was female. "Come on in. But go first."

He thought about it. The pair of them stood in front of him. "One of you get a light going in there."

The second figure vanished, and in a moment a dim light flared, casting a faint glow on the youth outside. Mradhon calculated his chances, slipped his own knife into its sheath and went, with a prickling sensation at his nape-a short step up to the floor with the man at his back, a flash of the eye about the single room, the tattered faded curtain at the end that could conceal anything; the woman; a single cot this side, clothing hung on pegs, water jugs, pots and pan-.nikins set on a misshapen brick firepit at the right on the rim of which the lamp sat. The woman was the finer image of the man, dark hair cropped close as his, like twins-brother and sister at least. He turned. The brother shut the door behind him with a push of his foot.

"Mama Becho's," the brother said. "That was where you were."

"You're Jubal's man," Mradhon said and ignored the knife to walk over to the wall nearest the clothes, where a halfwall jutted out to shield his back from the curtain. "Still Jubal's man, I'm guessing, and I'm looking for hire."

"You're crazy. Out. There's nothing for you here."

"Not so easy." He saw one cloak on the pegs. The man wore one. There was some clothing, not abundant. He fingered the cloak, letting them follow his train of thought, and looked at them again, folded his arms and leaned back against the wall. "So Jubal's got troubles, and maybe he's in the market. I work cheap-to start. Room and board. Maybe your man can't support anything more right now. But times change. And I'm willing to ride through this-difficulty. Better days might come. Mightn't they? For all of us."

The woman made a quiet move that took her to the side. She sat down on the cot, and that put their hands on different levels, at different angles to his vision. He recognized the stalking and the angle the man occupied between him and the door, the curtain at his shoulder, so he moved again a couple of paces along the wall, slipped his hands both into his belt (but the one not far from his knife) and shrugged with a wry twist of his mouth.

"I tell you I work cheap," he said, "to start."

"There's no hire," the man said.

"Oh, there has to be," Mradhon said softly, "otherwise you wouldn't like my leaving here at all, and I've walked in here in good faith. It's your pick, you understand, how it goes from here. An introduction to your man, a little earnest coin-"

"He's dead," the woman said, and shook his faith in his own bluff. "The hawkmasks are all like us-looking for employ."

"Then you'll find it. I'll throw in with you- partners, you, me, the rest of you."

"Sure," the man said, and scowled. "You've got the stink of hire about you already. What coin? The prince's?"

Mradhon forced a laugh and leaned back again. "Not likely. Not likely the Hell Hounds or any of that ilk. My last hire turned sour, and a post in the guard-no. Not with your complexion-or mine. Your man, now-So he and you are lying low a while, and maybe I've got reasons for doing the same. There are people I don't want to meet. No better service I can think of-than a man who might be building back from a little difficulty. Don't give me that. Jubal's gone to cover. Word's around. But one of those hawkmasks might suit me . . . keeping my face out of the sight of two or three."

"I'm afraid you're out of luck."

"No," the woman said, "I think we ought to talk about it."

Mradhon frowned, trusting her less, liking it not at all that it was the woman that took that twist, that looked at him from the cot and tried to demand his attention away from her brother? cousin? with a quiet, incisive voice.

Then the curtain moved, and a darkskinned man in a hawkmask stood there with a sword aimed floorward in his hand. "We talk," the man said, and Mradhon's heart, which had leapt several beats while his fingers, obeying previous decision, stayed still... began to beat again.

"So," Mradhon said cockily enough, "I was wondering when the rest of us would get into it. Look-I'm short of funds ... a little bit for earnest, so I can reckon I'm hired. I'm particular about that."

"Mercenary," the young man said.

"Once," Mradhon said. "The guard and I came to a parting of the ways. It's this skin of mine."

"You're not Ilsigi," said the mask.

"Half." It was a lie. It served, when it was convenient.

"You mean," the youth said, "your mother really knew."

Heat flamed up in Mradhon's face. He gripped the knife and let it go again. "When you know me better," Mradhon said softly, "I'll explain it all . . . how women know."

"Cut it," the woman said. She tucked her feet up within her arms.

"What would it take," the hawkmask said, "for you to consider yourself hired?"

Mradhon looked at the man, his heart pounding again. He sat down on the edge of the firepit, making himself easy when his instincts were all otherwise. He thought of something exorbitant, remembered the hawkmasks' fallen fortunes. "Maybe a silver bit-Maybe some names, too."

"Maybe you don't need them," the hawkmask said.

"I want to know who I'm dealing with. What the deal is for."

"No. Mor-am; Moria; they'll deal with you. You'll have to take your orders there-Does that gall you?"

"Not particularly," Mradhon said, and that too was a lie. "As long as the money's regular."

"So you knew Mor-am's face."

"From across the river. From days before the trouble. I dealt with a man named Stecho."

"Stecho's dead."

The tone put a wind down his nape. He shrugged. "So, well, I suspect a lot were lost."

"Stabbed. On the street. Tempus' games. Or someone's. These are hard times. Vis. Yes, we've lost a few of us. Possibly someone talked. Or someone knew a face. We don't wear the masks outside, Vis. Not now. You don't talk in your sleep, do you, Vis?"

"No."

"Where lodging?"

"Becho's."

"If," the voice grew softer still, difficult, for its timbre, "if there were a slip, we would know. You see, it's your first job to keep Mor-am and Moria safe. If anything should happen to the two names you knew-well, we'd suspect, I'm afraid, that you'd made some kind of mistake. And the end of that would be very bad. I can't describe enough-how bad. But that won't happen; I know you'll take good care. Go back to your lodgings. For now, go there. We'll see about later."

"How long?" Mradhon asked tautly, not favoring this threatening and believing every word of it. "Maybe I should move in here-to keep an eye on them."

"Out," said Mor-am.

"Money," Mradhon said.

"Moria," the hawkmask said.

The woman uncurled from the cot, fished a bit from the purse she wore and offered it to him.

He took it, snatched it from her fingers without a look, and strode for the door. Mor-am got out of his way and he opened it, stepped out into the foul wind and the dark and the reek of the alley, and walked, out onto the main way again.

Doubtless one of them would follow him. His mind seethed with possibilities, and murder was one. -For less than the silver, any one of them would kill. He sensed that. But there was the chance too that the hire was real: their casualties were real, and they could not get too many offers now.

He padded as quickly as he could toward his own territory down the main road, down which the last few stragglers moved, homeless and searching, muddle-minded, some, which kleetel left of one when its use had been too long; or moving with purpose it was unwise to stare at. He strode along in a world of faceless shapes and lightless buildings, everything anonymous as himself. Hooves sounded in the dark, moving in haste, and in a moment the streets were clear, himself among the lurkers that hid along the alleys: a. quartet of riders passed toward the bridge, Stepsons, Tempus' men. They were gone in a moment and life poured back onto the street.

So the business out by Jubal's estate continued, and Tempus settled in. A shiver ran down Mradhon's spine, for the inconvenience of the neighborhood. He wanted out-desperately he thought of Garonne-if he had had the funds. But they hunted spies. War with Nisibis was on them. Any foreigner was suspect, and one who really happened to be Nisibisi-

Most especially he avoided the main ways after that, grateful for the anonymity of Mama Becho's, which lay off the main track the carts and the riders took. Something in him shivered, remembering the hire he had just accepted, pay which had set him against the new occupants of the estate. Tempus' men hunted hawkmasks as they hunted spies and foreigners; and gods knew it was no prettier way to go.

The alleyways unwound, almost home territory now. A beggar or two always huddled near Mama Becho's, one wakeful enough tonight to put out a claw and want a coin a true cripple, perhaps, or too sick to make the bridge to richer streets. A dry spitting attended his lack of charity.

Then for one heart-stopped moment he heard a sound behind, and turned, but there was nothing but the moon on a muddy alley and the tilt-walled buildings leaning together like some fever dream of hell in the dark.

Followed, he thought. He quickened his pace, on the verge of home, and came to the alleyway by Mama's, where the drinking continued, and the hangers-about-the door still loitered, but fewer of them. He walked into that alley and Tygoth was there, to his relief, a hulking stick-carrying shadow making his rounds.

"It's Vis," Mradhon said.

"Huh," was Tygoth's comment. Tygoth rapped against the wall with his stick. "Walk with you?"

Tygoth did, taking his duty seriously, rapping the wall as he went, rapping at the door of his lodgings, opening the door for him like the servant of some palatial home, across from the lighted parchment window that was Mama Becho's own.

"Coin," Tygoth said, and held out his hand. Mradhon laid the nightly fee in the huge palm, and the sturdy fingers closed. Tygoth went into the room and fetched the little light from its niche by the door, stumped away with it to Mama Becho's back door and opened that to light it from that inside, then came back again, shielding the flame with his monstrous hand. With greatest care he went inside and set it in its place.

"Safe," Tygoth declared then, a murmurous rumble, and walked off tapping his stick against the walls.

Mradhon looked after that shambling shadow, then went in and barred the door.

Safe.

So he had a bit of silver to bolster his dwindling coppers, and a bar on the door for the night, but it was in his mind that this Mor-am and Moria would change their lodgings tonight and not show up again.

He hoped. It was more surety than he had had the day before.

In the safety of his room he pinched out all but the nightwick and lay down to his sleep, hoping for sleep, but knowing that there would be dreams.

There always were.

* * *

Ischade, the wind whispered coming from the river and riffling through the debris outside. He dreamed her walking the streets of Downwind this time, her black robes unsullied, and the stench became the musk that surrounded her, like the smell of blood, like the smell of dead flowers or old, dusty halls.

He waked in sweat, more than once. He lay awake and stared into the dark: the draft had put the wick out. It always did. He reminded himself that there was the silver; he felt it in the dark, like a talisman, proving that that meeting had been real.

He needed anonymity and gold. He needed power that could put locks on doors. He put fanatic hope in this Jubal, who had once had both.

Whenever he shut his eyes he dreamed.




iii

There was silence in the small company, a prolonged silence inside the cramped quarters that had been one of their safe shelters, with Mor-am sulking in a crouch against the wall and Moria folded in the other comer, her arms about her knees. Eichan occupied the cot, crosslegged, arms wrapped about his huge chest, his dark head lowered, uncommunicative. What could be done had been done. They waited.

And finally the scurrying came in the alley outside, which brought heads up and got Moram and Moria to their feet: no attack, not likely. Two of their own were on the street now, watching.

"Get it," Eichan said, and Moria unlatched the door.

It was Dzis, who stepped owlishly into the faint light they afforded inside-no mask, not on the streets these days: all Dzis managed was dirt, and the stink that armored all Downwind's unwashed. "He went where he said," Dzis said. "He's snugged in at Becho's alley."

"Good," Eichan said, and got up from the cot, taking his cloak across his arm. "You stay here," he said to Mor-am and Moria. "Use the drop up the way. Keep on it."

"You didn't have to give our names," Moria said. She trembled with rage, whether at Eichan or at her brother. "Any objection if we settle that bastard outright?"

"And leave questions unanswered?" Eichan flung on the cloak. He towered, difficult to conceal if one suspected it was Eichan. "No. We can't afford that now. You've cost us a safe hole. You live in it. And watch yourselves."

"There'll be watchers," Moria said, hoping that there would.

"Maybe," said Eichan. "And maybe not." He followed Dzis back out the door and pulled it after him. The latch dropped. The lampflame waved shadows round the walls.

Moria turned round and looked at her brother, a burning stare.

Mor-am shrugged.

"Hang you," Moria said.

"Oh, that's not what they do to hawkmasks lately. Not the ones on our trail."

"You had to go to Becho's, had to have it, didn't you? You let someone follow you, stinking stewed-get off it, hear me? Get off that stuff. It'll kill you. It almost did. When the Man gets back-"

"There's no guarantee he's coming back."

"Shut up." She darted a frantic glance at the door, where one of the others could still be listening. "You know better than that."

"So-they got him good this time, and Tem-pus wins. And Eichan goes on pushing and shoving as if the Man was still-"

"Shut up!"

"Jubal's not in shape to do anything, is he? They go on hunting hawkmasks in the street and none of us know when we'll be next. We live in holes and hope the Man gets back...."

"He'll settle with them when he does. If we keep it all together. If-"

"If. If and if. Have you seen that lot that's moved in on the estate? Jubal'll never go back there. He won't face them down. Can't. Did you hear the riders in the street? That's permanent."

"Shut up. You're stiffed."

Mor-am walked over to the wall and pulled his cloak off the peg.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Out. Where there's less noise."

"Don't you dare."

He slung it on and headed for the door.

"Come back here." She grabbed at his arm, futile: he had long ago outweighed her. "Eichan will have your head."

"Eichan doesn't care. He feeds us pennies and gives silver out with our names for the asking."

"You won't go after him. Eichan said-"

"Eichan said. Stay out of my business. No, I won't cut the bastard's throat. Not tonight. I've got a headache. Just let me alone."

"All right, all right, I won't talk to you, just stay inside."

He pulled the door open and went out it.

"Mor-am?" she hissed.

He turned and held up a coin. "Enough to get me really drunk. But only enough for one. Sorry."

He whirled and left, a flurry of a ragged cloak. Moria closed the door, crossed the room, flung herself down to sit on the cot with her head in her hands and the blood pounding in her temples. She was scared. She wanted to hit something. Anything. Since the raid had scattered them with half their number dead, it was all downhill. Eichan tried to hold it together. They had no idea whether he had what he claimed to have, whether Jubal was even still alive. She doubted it sometimes, but not out loud. Mor-am's doubts were wider. She did not fully blame him: tonight she hated Eichan-and remembered it was Mor-am himself who had led the outsider to them. Drunk. Stoned on krrf, using far too much.

And Becho's-any place was dangerous if they frequented it, if they set up a pattern, and her brother had a pattern. His habits led him here and led him there. There was the smell of death about him, that terrified her. All the enemies the slaver Jubal had ever accumulated (and they were many) had come to pick bones now that his power was broken; from the days that hawk-masks used to swagger in gaudy dress through the streets, now they wore ragged cloaks and slunk into any hole that would keep them. And that was, for all of them, a bitter change.

Mor-am could not bear it. She gave him money, doled it out, hers and his; but he had lied to her-she knew he had; and gotten that little more that it needed for Becho's. Or he had cut a purse or a throat, defying Eichan's plain orders. He was committing slow suicide. She knew. They had come up together out of this reek, this filth, to Jubal's service, and learned to live like lords; and now that it was back to the gutter again, Mor-am refused to live on those terms. She held onto him with all her wit and talents, covered for him, lied for him. Eichan might kill him himself if he had seen him go; or beat him senseless: she wished she had the strength to pound the idiocy out of him, flatten him against a wall and talk sense to him. But there was no one to do that for him. Not for years.

* * *

Mor-am flung off down the street, striding along with purpose none of the sleepers in doorways challenged, getting off the main road as quickly as he might.

But something stirred another way. A beggar dislodged himself from his doorway near an alley and shuffled along until he reached shadows, then moved quite differently, hunker-ing down when he thought it might serve and running spryly enough when there was need.

Then other beggars began to move, some truly lame, but not all.

And one of them had already gone, scuttling along alleys as far as a shack near Mama Becho's, at the back of which the White Foal river flowed its sluggish, black-glistening way beneath the bridge.

Guards dozed there, about the walls, unlikely as guards as he was unlikely as a messenger, in rags, one a little urchin-girl sleeping in the alley, who looked up and went back to her interrupted nap, a huddle of bony limbs; and one a one legged man who did the same; but that hulk nearest the door got up and faced the messenger.

"Got something," the messenger said, "himself'd want to hear."

The guard rapped at the door. In a little time it opened on the dark inside, and a shutter opened, affording light enough to someone who had been inside all along.

The messenger went in and squatted down in a crouch natural to his bones and delivered what he had heard.

So Moruth listened, sitting on his bed, and when the messenger was done, said: "Put Squith on it, and Ister."

Luthim left, bowing in haste.

Mama's latest boarder. Moruth pondered the idea, hands clasped on his knees, smiling and frowning at oruce because any link between his home territory and the hawkmasks he hunted made him uneasy. There was, in the dark, on the back side of the door, a mask pinned with an iron nail, and there was blood on it that had dried like rust in the daylight; but only those that came to this shack and had the door closed on them could see it. It was a joke of sorts. Moruth had a sense of humor, like his half-brother Tygoth shambling along the alleys by Mama's, rapping his stick and mumbling slackwitted nonsense. He had one now, and ordered Luth-im himself followed: the urchin was summoned to the door and given a message to take.

So Tygoth would know.

"Good night," Moruth told his lieutenant, and the man closed the shutters and the door, leaving him his darkness and his sleep.

But he kept rocking and thinking, pondering this and that, shifting pieces on his mental map of Downwind alleys, remembering this and that favor owed, and how to collect.

Hawkmasks died, and either they were loyal (which seemed unlikely) or ignorant where Jubal lay, even in extremity. He had had three so far. The one nailed to the door had told him most, where these two lodged; but so far he had not pounced. He knew the homes and haunts of others.

And suddenly the trail doubled back again, to Mama's, to his own territory. He was not amused.

* * *

And just the other side of the bridge, in a curious gardened house with well lighted windows casting a glow on the same black water. ...

Ischade received quite another messenger, a slave and young, and handsome after a foreign fashion, who appeared at her gate disturbing certain wards, who came up the path only after hesitating some long time, and stood inside her dwelling as if he were dazed.

He was a gift, constantly held out to her. He had come and gone frequently, sent by those who had offered her employ, and stood there now staring at the floor, at anything but herself. Perhaps he had known in the beginning that he was not meant to come back to his masters; or that his handsomeness was to have attracted her and offered a reward; he was not stupid, this slave. He was scared, perpetually, sensing something, if only that his mind was not what it ought to be when he was here, and he would not, this time, look at her, not at all. She was, on one level, amused, and on another, vexed with those who had sent him-as if she were some beast, to take what was thrown to her, even so delicate an offering as this.

But they dared not come themselves. They were that cautious, these adherents of Vashanka, not putting themselves within this room.

She was untidy, was Ischade; her small nest of a house was strewn not with rags but with silks and cloaks and such things as amused her. Her taste was garish, with unsubtle fire-colored curtains, a velvet throw like a puddle of emerald, and it all undusted, unkept, a ruby necklace like a scatter of blood lying atop the litter on a gilded table-a bed never made, but tossed with moire silks and hung with dusty drapes. She loved color, did Ischade, and avoided it for her dress. Her hair was a fall of ink about her face; her habiliments were blacker than night; her eyes- But the slave would not look at them.

"Look up," she said, when she had read the message, and after a moment he must. He stared at her. The fear grew quiet, because she had that skill. She held him with her eyes. "I did a service for one your masters knew-lately. They seem to think this obligates me. Nothing does. Do they realize this?"

He said nothing, shaped a no with his lips. He had no wish to be party to any confidences, that was clear. Yes, or no, or whatever she wanted to hear; the mind, she thought, was unfocussed like the eyes.

"So. Do you know what this says?"

No, the lips shaped again.

"They want the slaver. Jubal. Does that amuse you?"

No answer at all. There was fear. It bubbled against her nerves like strong wine, harder and harder to resist, but she played with it, stronger than they judged she was, despising them-and perhaps a little mad. At times she thought she was, or might become so, and at others most coldly sane. Humor occurred to her, a private laughter, with this gift so obviously proffered, this-bribe. Animal she was not. She knew always what she did. She moved closer and her fingers touched his arm while she wove a circle round him like some magic rite. She came full circle and looked up at him, for he was tall. "Who were you?" she asked.

"Haught is my name," he said, all but a whisper, she was that close, and he managed then to look past her.

"And were you born a slave?"

"I was a dancer in Garonne."

"Debt?"

"Yes," he said, and never looked at her the while. She had, she thought, guessed wrong.

"But not," she said, "Caronnese."

There was silence.

"Northern," she said.

He said nothing. The sweat ran on his face. He never moved: could not, while she willed; but never tried: she would have felt a trial of her hold.

"They question you, don't they, about me?- each time. And what do you tell them?"

"There's nothing to tell them, is there?"

"I doubt that they are kind. Are they? Do you love them, these masters of yours? Do you know what you're really for?"

A flush stained his face. "No," she said sombrely, answering her own question. "Or you'd run, even knowing what you'd pay." She touched him as she might some fine marble, and there was such hunger, such desire for something so fine-it hurt.

"This time," she said after measuring that thought, "I take the gift... but I do with it what I like. My back door, Haught, is on the river, a great convenience to me; and bodies often don't surface, do they? Not before the sea. So they won't expect to find you ... So just keep going, do you hear? Serves them right. Go somewhere. I set you free."

"You can't-"

"Go back to them if you like. But I wouldn't, if I were you. This message doesn't need an answer. Don't you reckon what that means? I'd keep running, Haught-no, here." She went to the closet and picked clothing, a fine blue cloak many visitors left such remembrances behind. There were cloaks, and boots, and shirts-all manner of such things. She threw it at him; went to the table and wrote a message. "Take this back to them if you dare. Can you read?"

"No," he said.

She chuckled. "It says you're free." She took a purse from the table (another relic) and gave that into his hand. "Stay in Sanctuary if you choose. Or go. Take my word. They might kill you-but they might not. Not if they read that note. Do as you please and get out of here."

"They'll find me," he protested.

"Trust the note," she said, "or use the back door and the bridge."

She waved her hand. He hesitated one way and the other, went toward the front and then fled for the back, for the riverside. She laughed aloud, watching his flight from her doorway, watched him run, run down the riverside until the dark swallowed him.

But after the laughter was dead she read the message they had sent her a second time and burned it in the lamp, letting the ashes fall and scorch an amber silk, carelessly.

So Vashanka's faction went on wanting her services, and offered three times the gold. She cared nothing for that at present, having all she cared to have. She cared not to be more conspicuous, no, not if they offered her a palace for her services. And they could.

How would that be, she wondered, and how long till neighbors rebelled at the steady disappearances? She could buy slaves... but enter the Prince's court, but live openly-?

The thought amused, the way irony might. She could herself become Jubal, in a trade that would well suit her needs. A pity she had already taken hire-

But the irony of it palled and the bitterness stayed. Perhaps the Vashanka lovers suspected what they did. Perhaps they had some inkling of her motives or the need-and so they sent the likes of Haught, a messenger they expected to have had thus silenced on the first visit, then to supply her with more and more; or a lure they dragged past her with cynical cruelty, to ascertain how much they believed was truth-what she was, and how long her restraint might go on.

She thought on Haught and thought, as she had each time he came to her; and that too they had surely intended. The hunger grew. Soon it would be too strong.

"Vis," she said aloud. The images merged in her mind, Vis and Haught, two dark foreigners, both of whom she had let go-because she was not pitiless. There was hell in the slave's eyes, like hers. Time after time he had passed that door in either direction, and the hell grew, and the terror that was itself a lure-one could develop such a taste, for the beauty and the fear, for gentility. Like a drug. She had more pride.

She had had no intention of going out at all tonight. But the restlessness grew, and she hated them for that, for what they had done, that now she would kill, the way she always killed-but not in the way they thought. It was the luck that followed her, the curse an enemy had laid on her.

She slung on her black cloak and pulled up the hood as she went out by that back way as well, through the small vine-tangled garden and past the gate to the

river walk, pace, pace, pace along the unpaved way.

And pace, pace, pace along the bridge, a striding of small slippered feet, soft against the wooden planks; and onto the wet pavings and then the paveless alleys of the Downwind. She hunted, herself the lure, as the slave had been-

Perhaps she would find him, lingering too long in his flight. Then she would have no compunction. A part of her hoped for this, and savored the trust there might be at first, and then the terror; and part of her said no.

She was fastidious. The first accoster she met disgusted her, and she left him dazed by the close encounter of her eyes, as if he had forgotten why he was in this place at all; but the second took her fancy, being young and with that arrogance of the street tough, the selfish self-doubt that amused her in its undoing, for most of that ilk recognized her in their heart of hearts, and knew that they had met what they had hated all their twisted lives-

That kind was worth the hunt. That kind had no gentler core, to wound her with regret. This one had no regret in him, and no one in all the world would miss him.

There was an abundance of his kind in Sanctuary and its adjuncts; it was why she stayed in this place, who had known so many cities: this city deserved her... like the young man who faced her now.

She thought of Haught still running, and laughed a twisted laugh, but soon the assailant/victim was too far gone to hear, and in the next moment she was.


iv

"Money," Mor-am said, sweating. His hands shook and he folded his arms about his ribs under his cloak, casting a furtive look this way and that down the alley of Shambles Cross, on the Sanctuary-ward side of the bridge. "Look, I've got a man in sight; it just takes a little to get him here. Meanwhile even Downwind takes money-leading a man anywhere takes money."

"Maybe more than you're worth," the man said, a man who frightened him, even in the open alley, alone. "You know there's a string on you. You know how easy it is to draw it in. Maybe I should just say-produce the man. Bring him here. Or maybe we ought to invite you in for a talk. Would you like that,-hawkmask?"

"You've got it wrong." Mor-am's teeth chattered. The night wind felt cold even for the season; or it was Becho's stuff working at his stomach. He locked his arms the tighter. "I take chances for what I get. I've got connections. It doesn't mean I'm-"

"If we hauled you in," the man said, ever so softly with the animals grunting softly in the distance, doomed to the axe in the morning, "if we did that they'd just change all the drops and meeting places, wouldn't they? So we dribble coin into your hand and you supply us names and places and times, and they do work don't they? But if they should be wrong-maybe I've got someone supplying me yours. Ever wonder that, Wriggly? Maybe you're not the only hawk-mask who wants to turn coat. So let's not make up tales. Where? Who? When?"

"Name's Vis. At Mama Becho's."

"That's a tight place. Not easy to get at."

"That's my point. I get him to you." There was a silence. The man brought out silver pieces and dropped them into Mor-am's hand, then clenched fingers on his as they closed. "You know," the Rankan said, "the last one named your name."

"Of course." Mor-am tried not to shake. "Wouldn't you want revenge?"

"Others have. You knew they would."

"But you want them brought out of the Downwind. And I do that for you." He clenched his jaw, a grimace against the chattering of his teeth. "So maybe we get to the big names. I give you those-I deliver them to you just like the little ones. But that's another kind of price."

"Like your life, scum?"

"You know I'm useful. You'll find I can be more useful than you think. Not cash. A way out." His teeth did chatter, spoiling his pose. "For me and one other."

"Oh, I don't doubt you'll be cooperating. You know if the word gets out on the streets how we got our hands on your friends-you know how long you'd last."

"So I'm loyal," Mor-am said.

"As a dog." The man thrust his hand back at him. "Here. Tomorrow moonrise."

"I'll get him." Mor-am subdued the shivering and sucked in a breath. "We negotiate the others."

"Get out of here."

He went, slow steps at first, and quicker, still with a tendency to shiver, still with a looseness in his knees.

* * *

But the man climbed the stairs of a building near that alley and made his own report.

"The slave is gone," one said, who in his silk and linen hardly belonged in the Shambles, but neither did the quarters, that were comfortable and well-lit behind careful shutters and sealing of the cracks. Two of the men were Stepsons, who smelted of oil and light sweat and horses, whose eyes were alike and cold; three had the look of something else, a functionary kind of coldness. "Into the Downwind. I think we can conclude the answer is no. We have to extend our measures. Someone knows. We take the hawkmasks alive and eventually we find the slaver."

"We should pull the slave in," another said. "No," said the first. "Too disruptive. If convenient... we take him."

"This woman is inconvenient."

"We hardly need more inconvenience than we've had. No. We keep it quiet. We destroy no leads. We want this matter taken out-down to the roots. And that means Jubal himself."

"I don't think," said the man from the street, "that our informer can be relied on that far. That's the one who ought to be pulled in, kept a little closer ... encouraged to talk."

"And if he won't? No. We still need him."

"A post. Security. Get him into our steady employ and we'll learn where all his soft spots are. He'll soften up fast. Just twist the screws now and then and he'll do everything he has to."

"If you make a mistake with him-"

"No mistake. I know this little snake." A chair grated. One of the Stepsons had put his foot on the rung, folded his arms with elaborate disdain for the proceedings. "There are quicker ways," the Stepson said. No one said anything to that. No one debated, but slid the discussion aside from it, arguing only the particulars and a slave who had finally run.

* * *

The bridge was always the worst part, coming or going. It narrowed possibilities. There was one way and only one way, afoot, to come into the Downwind, and Mor-am took it, sweating, feeling his heart pounding, with a little edge of black around his vision that might be terror or something in the krrf that he had bought, that tunnelled his vision and made his heart feel like it was starting and stopping by turns, lending an unreality to the whole night, so that he paused in the middle of the bridge and leaned on the rail, wishing that he could heave up his insides.

Then he saw the man following-he was sure that he was following, a walker who had also paused on the bridge a little ways down from him and delayed about some pretended business.

Sweat broke out afresh on him. He must not seem to see. He pushed himself away from the rail and started walking again, trying to keep his steps even. The shanties of Downwind lurched in his view under the moon, closer and closer, like the crazy pilings of the fishing-dock beside it and the sway and flare of someone's lantern near the water below. He found himself walking faster than he had intended, terror taking over.

Others used the bridge. People came and went, a straggle of them passing him in the dark, passing his pursuer and still he kept his steady pace. But one of them had veered into his path and sent his hand twitching after his knife, coming rapidly toward him.

Moria. His heart turned over as he recognized his sister face to face with him. "Walk past me," he hissed at her in desperation. "There's someone on my track."

"I'll get him."

"No. Just see who it is and keep walking."

They parted, expert mimery: importunate whore and disgusted stroller. He found his breath too short, his heartbeat pounding in his ears, trying to keep his wits about him and to concoct lies Moria would believe, all the while terrified for what might be happening behind him. There might be others. Moria might be walking into ambush set for him. He dared not turn to see. He reached the end of the bridge, kept walking, walking, walking, toward the shelter of the alleys. It was all right then, he kept telling himself; Moria could take care of herself, would recross the river and find her own way home. He was in the alleys, in his element again, of beggars crouched by the walls and mud squelching underfoot.

Then one of the beggars before him unfolded upward out of the habitual wall braced crouch, and from behind an arm encircled him, bringing a sharp point against his throat.

"Well," a dry voice cackled, "hawkmask, we got you, doesn't we?"

* * *

Moria did not run. Gut feeling cried out for it, but she kept her pace, in the waning hours of the night, with thunder rumbling in the south and flashing lightning in a threatening wall of cloud. It was well after moonset. Mor-am had not gotten home.

And there was a vast silence in the Downwind. It was not nature, which boomed and rumbled and advised that the streets and alleys of Downwind would be aswim. The street-dwellers were up seeking whatever scrap of precious board or canvas that could be pilfered, carrying their clutter of shelter-pieces with them like the crabs down by seamouth, making traffic of their own-It was none of these things; but it was subtle change, like the old man who always had the door across from their alley-door not being there, like no hawkmask watcher where he ought to be, in the alley across the way; or again, in the alley second from their own. They were gone. Eichan might have pulled them when their lair became unsafe.

But Mor-am had been followed on the bridge, and that follower had not led her back to Mor-am, when she had turned round again after passing him. Panic ran hot and cold through her veins, and guilt and self-blame and outright terror. She had become alone, like that, in the space of time it took to walk the bridge and turn round again; and find that the follower did not lead her to Mor-am, or to anything; he himself had hesitated this way and that and finally recrossed the bridge.

Mor-am would be at home, she had thought; and he was not.

She kept walking now, casual in the mutter of thunder, the before-storm movements of the street people, moving because if something had gone wrong, nowhere was really safe.

They hunted hawkmasks nowadays; and Eichan had cast them adrift.

There was one last place to go and she went to it, toward Mama Becho's.

The door still spilled light into the dark, where a few patrons sprawled, drunk and unheeding of the storm. Moria strode into it in a gust of wind, but the bodies sprawled inside in sleep were amorphous, heaped, drunken. There was no sign of Mor-am. A further, darker panic welled up in her, her last hope gone.

He still might be hiding, she tried to tell herself; might have gone to earth and determined to stay there; or it was bad and he was still running. Or even sleeping off a drunk.

Or dead. Like the murdered hawkmasks. Like one who had been nailed to a pole by the bridge.

She turned and strode for the door, almost colliding with the human mountain that suddenly filled it.

"Drink," Tygoth suggested.

"No."

He lifted his stick. "You come here to steal-"

"Looking for someone." Her mind leapt this way and that. "Vis. Boarder of yours."

"Asleep."

She dodged past and ran, down the alley, the only lighted alley in the Downwind, that got the light of the ever-lit lantern at Mama Becho's door.

"Vis," she called softly, rapping at the door. Her hands clenched against the wood. "Vis, wake up, get out here. Now." She heard Tygoth coming, shambling along after her, rapping the wall with his stick. "Vis, for the gods' sake, wake up." There was movement from inside. "It's Moria," she said. The rapping was closer. "Let me in."

The door opened, a rattling of the latch. She faced a daggerpoint, a half dressed man wild-eyed and suspecting murder. She showed her empty hands.

"Trouble?" Tygoth said behind her. "No trouble," Vis said, and reached out and caught her by the wrist in a crushing grip, pulling her inside, into the dark. He closed the door.

* * *

They brought Mor-am through the dark muffled in a foul-smelling, greasy cloak; gagged and with a bandage over his eyes and his hands so long tied behind his back that they had gone beyond acute pain to a general numb hurt that involved his chest and arms as well. He would have run but they had had his knees and ankles tied too, and now he was doing well to walk at all, with his knees and ankles beyond any sensation of balance, just stabbing pain. They jerked him along in the open air, and he remembered the hawkmask they had nailed to the pole near the bridge; but they had not yet hurt him, not really, and he was paralysed with hope, that this was all some irritation of the men he worked for; or fear, that they were his own brothers and sisters, who had found out about his treason; or, or, or-His mind was in tatters. They were near the bridge now. He heard the moving of the water far away at his left, heard the mutter of thunder, that confounded itself with the sounds about him. The image flashed to him of a sodden body crucified against a pole, in the early morning rain.



* * *

"Just put more men on it," the Stepson said, never stirring from where he sat, in the too great warmth of the room. The naivete of the operation appalled him. But there were necessities and places too little apt for his kind. "If you can do it without sounding the alarm through every alley in the Downwind." Something had gone wrong. The abruptness of the vanishing, uncharacteristic of the informer, smelted of interventions. "This had better not go amiss," his companion said meaningfully to the man who sat and sweated across the table. "It was far too productive. And you've botched the other avenue tonight, haven't you? That contact more than failed. It went totally sour. We don't like incompetence."

* * *

"I haven't seen him," Mradhon Vis said, in the dark, in the narrow room. The woman- Moria-had a knife; he was sure of that, sure where she was too, by her breathing. He kept where he was, having all the territory measured, thinking, in one discrete side of his mind, that he dealt with a fool or they thought he was one, a solitary woman coming at him like this.

But a vision of dark robes flashed through the dark of his vision, with cold, with the scent of musk; she was solitary, female, and he held in his hand the knife he slept with, safer than women.

"Why didn't you go to your own?" he sneered at her. "Or is this the testing? I don't like games, bitch."

"They've cut us off." The voice quavered and steadied. He heard her move at him and brought the knife up. It met her body and she stopped, dead still, hard breathing. "You took our pay." It was a hiss through clenched teeth. "Do something to earn it. Help me find him."

"Smells, woman. It smells all the way."

"He's into something. He's dealing in something. Krrf. Gods know what." The voice cracked. "Vis. Come with me. Now. After this- I'll swear to you you'll get money. You'll be in. I've got contacts I'll swear for you. Get my brother. He's dropped through a crack somewhere. Just come with me. Riverside. We've got to find him."

"How much."

"Name it. I'll get it."

A woman who was faithful. To something. He stared at the dark, doubting all of it, standing in the den Mama Becho owned and listening to the promise of gold to get him out of it.

"Back off," he said, shoving her away, not wanting her knife in him, and he reckoned it was drawn. "I'll get my shirt. Don't make any moves. Just tell me where you reckon to look for this lost lamb."

"Riverside." She caught her breath, a moving of cloth in the dark. "That's where they turn up-the hawkmasks they murder."

He stopped, his shirt half on. He cursed himself, thought of the gold and made his mind up to it. "You'll pay for this one."

* * *

Mor-am kicked. They jerked him off his feet and carried him, battering him against some narrow passage as he struggled, with the reek of wet stone and human filth and suddenly warm and windless air. They set him on his feet again and jerked the blindfold off. The room came clear in a haze of lamplight, a cot, a ragged small man sitting on it crosslegged amid a horde of others, the human refuse of the Downwind standing and squatting about the room. Beggars. He felt hard fingers working at the knot at the back of his skull, freeing him of the gag: he choked and tried to spit out the dirty wad and the same hard fingers pried it from his mouth, but his hands they had no intention to release. They only let him stand on his own, and his knees wanted to give under him.

"Hawkmask," the man said from the bed, "my name is Moruth. Have you heard it?"

No, he said, but his tongue stuck to his mouth and muffled it. He shook his head.

"Right now," Moruth said quietly, an unpleasant voice with the accent of Sanctuary's Maze and not the Downwind, "right now you'd be thinking that you shouldn't know that name, that taking that blindfold off means you're already a dead man and we don't care.what you see. Might be. That might be. Turn around."

He stood still. His mind refused to work.

"Turn 'round."

Hands jerked him about, facing the closed door. A mask was pinned there with a heavy iron nail. Terror came over him, blank terror, image of Brannas nailed to the pole. They spun him about again facing Moruth.

"You want to live," Moruth said. "You're thinking now you'd really like to live, and that this is an awful place to die." Moruth chuckled, a dry and ugly sound. "It is. Sit down-sit down, hawkmask."

He looked, reflexively. There was nowhere. A crutch hooked his ankle and jerked. He hit the dirt floor on his side and rolled, fighting to get his knees under him.

"Let me tell you a story," Moruth said softly, "hawkmask. Let me tell you what this Jubal did. Remember? Kill a few beggars, he said, and put the informer-sign on them, so's the riffraff knows what it is to cross Jubal the slaver, ain't it so?" The accent drifted to Downwind's nasal twang. "Ain't that what he did? And he killed us, killed boys and girls that never done no hurt to him-to impress them as might want to squeal on his business. It weren't enough he offs his own, no, no, he cut the throats of mine, hawkmask. You know something about that."

He knew. He shivered. "I don't. I don't know anything about it.-Listen, listen, you want names-I can give you names; I can find out for you, only you let me out of here-"

Moruth leaned forward, arms on ragged knees, grinned and looked appallingly lean and hungry-

"I think we've got one what'll talk, doesn't we?"

* * *

Haught flinched in his concealment beneath the bridge. Screams reached him, not fright, but a crescendo of them, that was pain; and they kept on for a time. Then silence. He hugged himself and shivered. They began again, different this time, lacking distinction.

He bolted, having had enough, finding no more assurance even in the dark; and the thunder cracked and the wind skirled, blowing debris along the shore.

Of a sudden something rose up in his way, a human form in the ubiquitous rags of Downwind, but with an incongruous long blade shining pure as silver in the murk. Haught shied and dodged, ex-dancer, leapt an unexpected bit of debris and darted into the alley that offered itself, alley after alley, desperate, hearing someone whistle behind him, a signal of some kind; and then someone blocked the alley ahead.

He zigged and dodged, feinted and lost: the cloak caught, and the fastening held; he hit the wall and the ground, and a hand closed at his throat.

* * *

"Escaped slave," Moria said, crouching by the man they had knocked down. She had her knife out, aimed for the ribs; but the throat was easier and quieter, and Mradhon was in the way. "Kill him. We can't afford the noise."

"Something started him," Mradhon said. The slave babbled a language not Rankan, not Ilsigi, nothing she knew, sobbing for air. "Shut up," Mradhon said, shaking him and letting hishand from the man's throat. Mradhon said something then, the same way, and the slave stopped struggling and edged up against the wall. He talked, an urgent hiss in the gloom, and Mradhon kept the knife at his throat.

"What's that?" Moria asked, clenching her own hilt in a sweating fist. "What's that babble?"

"Keep still," Mradhon said, reached with his fist and the hilt of his knife and touched the slave gently on the side of the cheek. "Come show us, seh? Come show us the place. Fast."

"What place?" Moria demanded, shoving Mradhon's arm.

Mradhon ignored her, hauling the slave to his feet. She got up too, knife aimed, but not meaning to use it. The slave had straightened up like a human being, if a frightened one, and moved free of Mradhon's grip, travelling with lithe speed. Mradhon followed and she did, as far as the opening of the alley.

"River," the slave said, delaying there. "By the bridge."

"Move," Mradhon said.

The slave rolled his head aside, staring back at them, muttered something.

"Seh," Mradhon repeated. "Move it, man." Mradhon set an empty hand on his shoulder. The slave gave a gasp for air like a diver going under and headed down the next alley, stopping again when they reached a turning.

"Lost," the slave said, seeming to panic. "I can't remember; and there were men men with swords-and the screams-It was the house by the bridge, that one-"

"Get moving," Moria hissed frantically and jabbed him with the blade. The slave flinched, but Mradhon stayed her hand with a grip that almost broke her wrist.

"He's likely still alive," Mradhon said. "You want my help, woman, you keep that knife out of my way; and his."

She nodded, wild with rage and the delay. "Then quit stopping."

"Haught," Mradhon said. "Stay with us."

They went, running now, with no pauses, down the twisting ways even she did not know; but it was Mradhon's territory: they passed through a shanty alleyway so close they had to turn their shoulders and came out upon sight of the bridge.

It was quiet, excepting the wind, the dry, muttering thunder. A lightning flash threw the pilings of the bridge and the house by the pier into an unnatural blink of day, exposed a bridge vacant of traffic.

"There," said the slave, "there, that was the place-"

"Better stay back here," Mradhon said.

"It's quiet," Moria said. Her voice shook despite herself. "Man, hurry up." She pushed at him and got shoved in turn. He caught a fistful of her shirt and jerked at her.

"Don't shove. Get your mind working, woman, cool down, or I'm off this."

"I'll get round by the windows," she said, shivering. "I'll find out. But if you run out on me-"

"I'll be working up the other side. Haught and I. If it's even odds we take them. If it isn't we pull off, hear, and refigure."

She nodded and caught her breath, trotted off with a looseness of her knees she had not felt since her first job; felt as vulnerable as then, everything gone wrong. She sorted her mind into order, pretending it was not Mor-am in there, in that long quiet, where screams had been before.

She took a back alley, disturbing only an urchin-girl from her rest, going round the long way, where boards might gape and afford sight or sound, but none did. She kept going, focussed now, lost in the moment-by-moment calculations, and found the windows she hoped for, shuttered, but there was a crack.

She listened, and something went twisted inside. It was a quiet voice, that described streets with deadly accuracy, a strained voice that told no lies.

... Mor-am's. Giving away all they had.

And more than three of them in there.

"There's another house," her brother volunteered all too eagerly, "by the west side. There's a way from there out into a burned house....We used that in the old days...."

Shut up, she wished him, having difficulty holding her breath.

Something moved behind her. She whirled, knife thrusting, and got the man in the belly, leapt, and saw others.

"Ai!" she yelled, slashing wild, a howl that was the last shred of honor: It's all up, it's done- She tried to run.

There were still more, arrived from out of nowhere, a sweep of men and knives in the dark, rushing the house and alley from the riverside. She stabbed and killed; the urchin-girl shrieked and ran into shadows as beggars scattered and guardsmen shouted orders.

Fire streaked Moria's side. She slashed and stumbled back; and back as wood cracked and the house erupted with shouting and with knives, and the back way opened, pouring out bodies.

She fell. Someone stepped on her back as she lay there, and she braced and rolled against the shanty wall as the battle tended the other way. She crawled for the alley, scrambling to her feet as she reached the comer of the shanty.

Someone grabbed her from the back and dragged her aside; the slave Haught pinned her knifehand under his arm and a hand muffled her as they hit the dark leanto together, a knot of three.

"Keep low," Mradhon hissed in her ear as tumult passed their hiding-hole. A man died not far from them in the first pattering of rain. She lay still, feeling the pain in her side when she breathed, feeling for the rest as if she had been clubbed.

Mor-am?

Fire glared, a quick flaring up of orange light in the direction of the shanty.

She struggled then. The two of them held her.

"You can't help him," Mradhon said, his arms locked round her.

"She's hurt," said Haught. "She's bleeding."

They tended her, the two of them. She hardly cared.

* * *

"It's him," the Stepson said, looking disdainfully at the human wreck they deposited on the road across the bridge. Rain washed the wounds, dark threads of blood trailing in a wash of water over the skin. The guard toed the informer in the side, elicited a little independent movement of the arm, lit in lightning flashes. "Oh, treat him tenderly," the Stepson said. "Very tenderly. He's valuable. Get a blanket round him."

"We lost the rest," his companion said tautly. There was rage beneath his tone.

The Stepson looked up. A shadow stood there in the lightnings, in the rain, an unlikely cloaked shape, a darkness by the bridge.

When the lightning next flashed it was gone. Fire danced on the water, full of tricks and shadows on this side of the bank. The blaze might have taken all of Downwind, but for the rain. It was dying even now.

Six horsemen thundered across the bridge from Sanctuary to Downwind, securing the road.

"You'd better send more," the garrison officer said. "They're like rats over there, small but a lot of them. You- saw that."

The Stepson fixed the man with a chill, calm eye. "I saw catastrophe. Two of us could have turned the town upside down if that were the object. Perhaps you misunderstood. But I rather doubt it. Six could raze the town. But that wasn't what we wanted, was it?" He looked down at the moaning informer, then collected his companion and walked away.

* * *

"Drink," Mradhon said. Moria drank, holding the cup herself this time, and stared blearily at the two men, Mradhon leaning over her, Haught over against the wall. It was decent food they gave her. She wondered where they got the money, dimly, in that vague way she wondered about anything. She was curious why these two kept treating her as they did, when it cost them, or why two men she had never met had proved dependable when those she had known best had not. It confounded her. They never used that language they both spoke, not since that night. Haught had put on freeman's clothing, if only that of Downwind. He had scars. She had seen them, when he dressed. So did Mradhon Vis, but different ones, made with knives.

So did she, inside and out. Maybe that was what they had in common, the three of them. Or that they wanted what she knew, names and places. Or that they were just different, thinking differently, the way people did who had not grown up in the Downwind, and that kind of maze of foreignness she never tried to figure.

She just took it that they wanted something; and so did she, which was to fill a nebulous and empty spot and to keep fed and warm and breathing.

Mor-am was dead. She hoped so. Or things were worse than she had figured.



home | my bookshelf | | Downwind |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу